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Tourism numbers are good

NATCHEZ — Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and a hurricane, Natchez Fall Pilgrimage and tourism officials said fall pilgrimage visitor numbers are doing well.

Last weekend Hurricane Delta passed through southwest Mississippi and the pilgrimage was closed for the weekend, but before the storm, tourism numbers appeared to be about where they were last year, said Eugenie Cates, vice president
Natchez Pilgrimage Tours

“I ran into Charlotte Copeland the other day and she said her numbers at Sweet Auburn are about what they were last year,” said Eugenie Cates, vice president
Natchez Pilgrimage Tours. “She was quite pleased.”

Likewise, owners of Lansdown report they have had numbers similar to last year’s fall pilgrimage, Cates said.

Hurricane Delta last weekend downed seven trees on the Longwood property, one blocking the exit and forcing Longwood, one of the most popular historic houses on the pilgrimage, to close through Wednesday.

“(Thursday) at Longwood we had a great day, and I think a lot of people are in town for the balloon festival,” Cates said. “Considering we’ve had two hurricanes and COVID and all the other obstacles we’ve had there are still folks who want to come to Natchez and enjoy what we have here. We’ve seen very happy visitors at Stanton Hall and Longwood. I spoke to Donna Sessions at Magnolia Hall and they have been pleased.”

Cates said tourism picked back up soon after the houses reopened Monday following Delta.

“Officially we got back open on Monday, and Thursday of this week we had a good day all around,” Cates said.

Visitors to this year’s fall pilgrimage have come from all over, Cates said.

“We had a TV crew in town from France and they wanted to film and interview some families that had been in the houses for generations, like two generations or more,” Cates said. “So they went up to Linden and they also went out to Landsdown and filmed. The story they are working on is called ‘Road Trips to the South,’ and it will appear on the leading TV station in France.”

Mostly, however, Cates said visitors appear to be coming in from a drive distance.

“Visitors are definitely from neighboring areas, and I would say a lot of couples middle-age, mid-40s, trying to take a little time off from the family to get away for the weekend or something,” Cates said. “I think the B&Bs have been fairly happy with their occupancy.”

Likewise, Walter Tipton, manager of the Natchez Grand Hotel, said the hotel has been booked since September. However, Tipton said it is hard to discern how much of that business is directly related to pilgrimage.

A couple of weeks ago, Tipton said the Grand was booked with a convention for The Living Church of God, which was one of the first conventions the Natchez Convention Center has hosted since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March.

“We’ve been very full,” Tipton said on Oct. 9, the day before Hurricane Delta came through. “This will be the third hurricane (this season) and people evacuate to us as a result of the hurricane. We have 119 rooms and (Oct. 8) we were at 115 rooms sold, and we’ll sell out tonight and tomorrow night.”

Tipton said tourism is a fragmented market and it is sometimes difficult for hoteliers to discern what is driving the tourism.

“We have a wide variety of folks,” Tipton said. “The first nine days of October have been very, very good for us.”

Tipton said the Grand did run a social media fall pilgrimage special.

“That promotion reached 327 people, and we feel like that is pretty good,” Tipton said. “We also tracked our reservations under that promotion and we booked a total of 207 room nights from a period of Sept. 1 through Nov. 30 is the time range we gave it and as of … Oct. 9, we’ve had 207 room nights under that fall special.”

Tipton said he compared that to last year’s numbers between Sept. 1 through Oct. 9.

“We actually have a fewer number of reservations, but our overall number of room nights is up about 20%,” Tipton said. “I don’t know how much of that is the chamber bike race. I don’t know how much of that is the hurricane and I don’t know how much of that is fall pilgrimage. Those are the numbers.”

Cates said fall pilgrimage ticket sales are doing well this year and visitors have more ways to purchase tickets, including ticket sales at the Natchez Visitors Center, online at natchezpilgrimage.com and at the gift shop at Stanton Hall.

Visitors have a lot of options on how they can get their tickets and that seems to be going well.

“The benefit of purchasing tickets online is that we have a system where we can offer rain checks if something comes up like (last) weekend,” Cates said. “We can move that to another date. We can refund those tickets online on your credit card or whatnot. It is a lot more convenient for people to purchase the online tickets because if bad weather comes or something like last weekend they are not out of pocket. We can move the date for them.”

Some downtown merchants said business is doing well with the tourism spike brought in by pilgrimage and this weekend’s Natchez Balloon Festival.

“We’ve been pretty busy, really,” said Darby Short of Darby’s Famous Fudge and Gifts on Main Street in downtown Natchez. “I’m thankful for what we’ve had, considering.”

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